As you prepare for your Thanksgiving dinner, I ask that you take a moment to reflect on how the food got to your table. Our country’s migrant and seasonal farmworkers are responsible for much of the wonderful bounty you will be serving. Yet many of those workers who toiled in the fields performing the back-breaking labor, harvesting the fruits and vegetables, can’t even afford to purchase those very same items for their families to eat.
Farmworkers are among the lowest paid workers in America, with the average family of four earning just $17, 500 per year, far below the national poverty line. The members of the Association of Farmworker Opportunity Programs (AFOP) give those farmworkers hope that life can be better through the training programs they operate through the National Farmworker Jobs Program (NFJP). The NFJP is funded via the Workforce Investment Act (WIA) with competitive grants from the Department of Labor. With those funds, AFOP members provide the farmworkers with the opportunity to attain self and family-sustaining employment, usually with great benefits and access to a career ladder—things rarely provided in farm work.
In September, the House Appropriations Chairman, Hal Rogers, issued a draft 2012 appropriations bill that would, if enacted, have drastic effects on the employment and job training services funded through the Workforce Investment Act, including the NFJP. The House proposal would eliminate all advanced funding the Adult, Dislocated Worker, and Youth programs receive each year. It would also change the annual operating year from the program year (July 1-June 30) to the fiscal year (October 1-September 30). This may not seem like a big deal, after all, it’s just a date change, right? However, this change is not benign. The Campaign to Invest in America’s Workforce estimates these changes would cut as much as $2.2 billion from the WIA system in 2012 alone, causing hundreds of One Stop Career Centers to close. This kind of a cut, especially in already tight economic times, would virtually eliminate the job training services for hundreds of thousands of people searching for a job in this period of record unemployment.
Currently, staff members of the House and Senate Appropriations Committees are negotiating their different approaches to the Federal Fiscal Year budget for 2012. The fiscal year actually began October 1, 2011, so they are already nearly two months behind schedule. Unfortunately, that has become the norm in Washington, D.C. over the past decade. The government operates on continuing resolutions until the President signs an appropriations bill that both chambers of Congress have approved. At present, we are operating on the second such resolution, which is due to expire December 16.
AFOP members outreach to the farmworker community and assess the skills and training needs of eligible workers. Then they design an appropriate training program, one that will result in a job that can both lift them out of poverty and include benefits and a career ladder. In the case of the National Farmworker Jobs Program, the proposed transition from a program year to a fiscal year would cause significant disruption in a few ways.
First, for many AFOP agencies, the community colleges and other academic institutions provide much of the academic and technical portion of the training for the farmworker customers. These institutions operate on the school year, which begins in August or early September. Without having the actual budget until after October 1, it would be very difficult to plan a proper set of training programs for the farmworkers we serve. For example, just as it wouldn’t make sense to agree to sell a house to someone before he or she received approval for a loan, it wouldn’t make sense for these institutions to plan with the job training providers before they have a budget approved—throwing the entire planning process into chaos that is necessary for effective training and partnerships that result in clients successfully obtaining jobs.
Secondly, if Congress continues to fail to pass appropriations bills by September 30, AFOP members operating the NFJP face an even more daunting task: executing month-to-month training contracts with institutions, with no guarantee the courses will be finished. Most training sessions are at least four months long and they are often six months in length. In 2011, for example, the final legislation did not reach the President’s desk until April! As bad as that was, WIA programs still had over two months before the program year began, permitting at least some of the planning that was envisioned when the WIA was passed.
The final worry about the House plan: with the exception of two programs, the draft bill proposed by House Appropriations Chairman Rogers only funds part of the transition from program year to fiscal year. The NFJP was not one of those two programs. Thus, the NFJP grants would only be funded through December 31, 2012. The period January 1 through September 30, 2013, would have to be funded in the 2013 appropriations bill—a worrisome prospect as some Members of Congress look to cut any and all services to middle and low-income individuals and their families.
In conclusion, just as the date for our Thanksgiving dinner is important (it is even enshrined in federal law), so is the time frame for operating and funding programs that help America’s farmworkers escape the grinding poverty they experience in the fields. Our holiday hope is that Congress will do the right thing by properly scheduling and fully funding these important workforce development programs. At a time of such tremendous unemployment, we need more investment in America’s low-wage workforce, not less.